If you think about the people we meet every day, they are multi-dimensional, flawed, both sweet and sour, a mix of light and dark. They make mistakes, have moments of weakness in which they are not their best selves and then redeem themselves, promising they’ll do better, only to make the same mistakes again.
That’s true of all of us. And yet there are so many readers that prefer the protagonist in a novel to be a hero, someone who makes amends after the slightest indiscretion, who can see the good in everyone, even in the face of extreme adversity.
As a writer, I have considered the “Cinderella Dilemma”, as I call it, when I am creating characters. To explain what I mean, let’s consider Cinderella: a beautiful, hard-working, kind girl who accepts her lot in life but who is constantly daydreaming of being saved. She is presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, has the best night of her life, then quietly goes back to the way things were without so much as throwing a glass across the room in frustration or spitting in her stepmother’s tea. But she is the perfect foil to her evil stepmother, who is portrayed as having no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
As a writer, it is tempting to create a main character who is perfect in every way as the antithesis to the antagonist, but if there are no shades of light and dark to any of the characters, the writer runs the risk of creating a novel full of pantomime cameos where the reader is left feeling like they can’t relate to the narrative. Is Cinderella believable? Has she gone on a journey? Maybe, but she ends up back where she started. Would any of us react in the same way in such circumstances? Probably not.
So when writing a novel, do I want my protagonist to be smugly righteous, able to rise above and be better – or do I want a character that is flawed, human, realistic, able to make mistakes but also able to evolve beyond them?
I like to write about extremes happening to regular people. Those people who sometimes forget to brush their teeth at night or who spent Sundays in their pyjamas eating biscuits. I am all for characters who are well-rounded, can make mistakes, probably make them again, and then a third time before realising that perhaps they should do things differently. These are the characters who we love to hate, who can be bitchy and caustic, but also funny and kind and generous with it, so that we root for them more genuinely because if there is hope for them, there is hope for us too.
And if I have done my job well, readers will say to me that they didn’t really like the characters at the beginning of the book, but they loved where they ended up. The characters will have grown, evolved, learnt, failed, picked themselves up and carried on – like we all do every day.
There are no glass slippers and handsome princes in my novels – but there are women who spill their drinks as quickly as they spill their opinions, forget to call their mothers and phone in sick from work occasionally when they really just need a Netflix day. I am trying to create a character that a reader can identify with, who will scoop the reader up on their journey and carry them along for the ride - and I want the reader to be cheering at the finish line as the protagonist makes it to the end, glass slipper in hand, only to tell the handsome prince that actually she’s ok as she is, but thank you anyway.